flowers



Pain in Paradise. The first half of June has passed in a whirlwind of activity. Due to a drought enveloping Wisconsin and Minnesota this spring, the unexpected happened: I had to water—not only the new plantings, but everything—trees, bushes, perennials, annuals, and yes, even parts of the lawn! As I trudged around our entire one-acre property called Northern Bliss, dragging a hose during sweltering, record-setting 90-plus-degree heat, I wondered “Where is the bliss?” Other summers, I’ve divided my time between gardening in the morning pursuing creative projects during the hotter afternoon. This June, I’ve spent the mornings watering and the afternoons recovering. For two weeks, muscles aching, I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. 

The local evening news was filled with stories of the unusual Upper Midwestern drought. After the first nine days of temperatures over 90, the talking heads exclaimed: “Our record in here for all summer is 13 days over 90! So far, we’ve had nine days and counting.”

 

Gunter and I chuckled at first. It never rains in Southern California, where we spend our winters. And here, the locals complain of the heat when the temps climb over 80! After 5 more days, we quit laughing. The temperature kept breaking records, the nearby St. Croix River descended to record lows, and even the Great Mississippi shrank under the bridges crossing from Wisconsin to Minnesota. Here at White Ash Lake, one could walk on the shore alongside the riprap that prevents dashing waves from destroying shoreline. 

The local electric company chose the middle of a drought to rake and sow grass to repair the parts of the lawn damaged by burying electric cables last October. We appreciate the good job they did, but their timing was way off. “Just make sure to water those two sections and you’ll be fine,” a worker told me as he climbed into their truck and it rumbled off.  Those sections are at the far corners of the property. Reluctantly, I joined hose lengths together to reach them. More watering! I ordered more sprinklers from Amazon (the local Menards—similar to Lowes or Home Depot—was 100% sold out). With sprinklers spread like octopus legs from the house and cabin, the two well pumps ran all day. The next morning, still in my PJs, I moved and reset them before the sun rose high.  But after 30 minutes, the 1946-era cabin pump had enough. It blew its fuse. 

“Better call Mike,” we said simultaneously.  (He’s our son-in-law and “fixer.”) He found that the pump had burned out—probably because the sand point well was depleted due to receding groundwater. 

“Better call a well driller,” Mike said. Well drillers here are busy, as are plumbers, builders, electricians, and handymen in this part of rural Wisconsin. They are “backed up” until late fall or early spring. Fortunately, we have no visitors booked for the cabin this summer and we do have water in our main house, so we’re okay. Besides, drilling a new well at the cabin would mess up my perennial garden. As for the grass, watering was no longer an option. We would just have to wait for the elusive rain.

Day Tripping. “Let’s blow this pop stand,” I said last Saturday morning. “The forecast is for rain on Sunday—Father’s Day. God knows the farmers need rain more than any other gift they could receive. I think it will happen.” We threw a bag with snacks and water bottles into our Equinox and we were off to Crex Meadows, a wildlife area north of Grantsburg, less than 40 miles away

Crex Meadows is known known as a staging area for Sandhill cranes, but they would have already migrated; however, there’s always something to see. The Meadows encompass 30,000 acres, with wetlands, brush prairies, and forests scattered across a gently rolling landscape. It’s part of the Northwest Wisconsin Pine Barrens. These “Barrens” extend from northern Polk County (where we live) to southern Bayfield County (where we visited last fall); it covers 1500 square miles. This huge, sandy plain was left when a glacier retreated about 13,000 years ago.  The southern part of the Barrens where Crex is located contains huge marshes, part of ancient Glacial Lake.  

The 30,000 acres of Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area is managed by the Wisconsin DNR, Bureau of Wildlife Management. This habitat is now home to over 280 bird species, 720 plant species, 96 butterfly species, and a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Amazingly, every species of mammal found in Wisconsin has been on the Crex property at some point; even moose and mountain lions wander through occasionally.  You can download a map here. 

The Visitor Center wasn’t open when we drove through, but we picked up a map and bird checklist outside in a box to the right of the entry door. In addition to a number of small birds, we saw hundreds of trumpeter swans. Even though we have a resident pair on White Ash Lake, seeing flocks of them was exhilarating! Some swans were close to the overlooks and dike roads, so hiking wasn’t necessary to take these photos:

The Burnett Dairy Cooperative. This co-op has piqued my curiosity ever since I read an article in the local press about how they helped the farming community. It was the last week in March, 2020. Covid-19 had shut the country down.  Within a few weeks of the U.S. lockdown, Gunter and I escaped San Diego to wait it out in the country. With Wisconsin schools shut down, farmers here had lost a valuable distribution outlet. Milk and cheese were a vital part of state school nutrition programs. Restaurants also closed, causing the cheese market to dry up. And shifting butter production from tiny packets for restaurants to large blocks for grocery stores couldn’t happen overnight.

With distribution channels decimated, local farmers were forced to dump most of their milk. “Milk is being disposed of because of a massive and sudden loss of markets — more than half the nation’s restaurants are closed, sales of cheese are down 70 percent and some 44 percent of the nation’s cheese is sold through food service channels,” Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin announced.  Burnett Dairy, a vertically integrated cooperative, came to the rescue: “The Burnett Dairy Cooperative and our member farmers recognized an opportunity to make a difference during an extremely challenging time for our country and the dairy industry,” said Dan Dowling, CEO and president. “Farmers have always been the backbone of the national food supply, so we felt a responsibility to marshal our resources — and a little ingenuity — to fight hunger in our communities….” Cooperating farmers donated milk, Burnett Dairy made it into cheese, and Chell Trucking of Siren, Wisconsin donated refrigerated trucks to distribute cheese to food pantries and other nonprofit  organizations supplying free meals—including the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.

Dumping milk

Burnett Dairy was on our way back to Northern Bliss—that is, if we took the Hwy 70 route from Grantsburg. From the highway, we couldn’t miss the humongous dairy with its sign supporting Wisconsin farmers. As we entered the retail section, we couldn’t believe our eyes! The store is designed with an array of tempting eye-candy islands. It has separate sections for cheese, deli meats, souvenirs, and snacks. In one corner, customers were lined up for scoops of every flavor of ice cream imaginable. Grouped around the perimeter were coolers full of milk, cream, cheese, sausage and pizzas topped with mozzarella, Gouda or cheddar gruyere. The store was packed with families—a destination in its own right. The goodies are also available online. Go to the SHOP NOW section on their website to have cheeses, snacks, puddings and gifts delivered right to your doorstep. We tried the potato pork sausage: excellent!

Support Wisconsin Dairy Farmers sign
Burnett Dairy Coop
Burnett Dairy Cheese Board

Upon returning home, I had the urge to water, but I refused to give in. It WILL rain, I told myself. Sunday, I woke to the sound of a light, gentle rain—perfect for settling all that dry dirt. And later, the rain came down in torrents—a real soaker. Yay! A multitude of prayers were answered. The cold front brought a windy Monday but as I write this, the weather is perfect. The drought isn’t over, but this is a great first step!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


During our world circumnavigation, Gunter and I loved Australia and the Aussies so much that we decided to spend another year in The Land Down Under. We stored our catamaran Pacific Bliss on the hard in Mackay, Queensland and took the tilt train south to Sydney. From there, we rented a drive-yourself caravan (camper) to tour inland through the Blue Mountains, Cowra, Canberra, and back to Sydney via the sea route. Although fall was turning to winter throughout the Northern Hemisphere, in Australia we were enjoying the spring-to-summer transition. My favorite holiday flowers for arranging are the red tropicals: ginger, anthurium, and proteas. Imagine my delight seeing fields of such flowers on display at nature preserves!

Field of proteas

Field of Proteas

Following are excerpts from my journal:  

Touring Australia’s Blue Mountains
September, 2004

Katuomba Falls Caravan Park.  Blackheath Caravan Park. Destinations roll off our tongues as the landscape passes by. We experience two days of dreary skies and depressing, intermittent rain, which makes our road trip anti-climactic after the sunny skies and excitement of Sydney. But on the third day, the weather clears and an ethereal, winter-pale sun peeks over the evergreened landscape before it descends below the foothills and treetops. It leaves a soft brush of amber on the clouds. It’s amazing how the van seems cozier, less claustrophobic, when there’s a hint of sun.  

Gorgeous, white parrot-like birds with yellow crests flit from tree to tree as we enjoy our sundowners. Ducks waddle toward the van while we throw out tidbits. I take a twilight walk up a hillside and stumble upon one lone rhododendron bush; the rest will bloom next month.  November 1 is the beginning of the Rhododendron Festival here in Blackheath. 

Called “Australia’s most accessible wilderness,” the heralded Blue Mountains looked like a collection of Sydney suburbs on a ridge of a cut-out valley—eroded highlands with valleys below. “These are certainly not mountains like our western Rockies,” Gunter grumbled.  But as we drove further, he changed his tune. Narrow river gorges wound through the lower mountains. As we rose in elevation, vistas opened to yawning canyons. Mountain streams tumbled over escarpments, falling to thick, tangled vegetation.

Eucalyptus against limestone

Eucalyptus against limestone

Blue Mountains Overlook

Blue Mountains Overlook

Sydneysiders are fortunate to have such a national treasure within a few hours’ drive. A brochure we’d picked up in Sydney stated: “What a better way to uplift the soul than a weekend of World Heritage Wilderness!” This heritage area, made up of eight nature reserves, was established in 2000. It contains 400 animal species, more than one-third of Australia’s bird species, 1,300 plant species, and 4,000 species of moths and butterflies.

For the first twenty-five years of European occupation, the Blue Mountains defied settlers’ quest to expand west of Sydney. Expeditions were turned back by impenetrable undergrowth, wandering gorges, and steep canyon walls. Finally in 1813, three men, Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth, and William Lawson, broke through after eighteen miserable days.  They were rewarded with a view from the top of Mount York never seen by Europeans. Grassy plains stretched as far as their eyes could see—plains, they believed, that could support a continent of millions.  During the next two years, the Great Western Highway was cut through these mountains and western migration began.  

Morning brings a bright sun and clear blue skies. We are eager to begin the trip to the top of the pass. From Blackheath, we’ll backtrack to Medlow Bath, then double back and proceed on to Bell, drive along the north canyon rim to Mount Tomah, then double back again to Lithgow, finally proceeding on to our reserved cabin near Lake Lyell.  It is a fine, crisp day for touring but the drive is long and tortuous. The two-lane route—the same one followed by those early explorers—is narrow with tight turns and sheer drops. In most places, the ridge is too narrow for turnouts, look-outs, and rest stops. 

Gunter is an experienced mountain driver; even so, this route requires intense focus. 

At Medlow Bath, we stop to see the Grand Hotel, a famous meeting place for world dignitaries. Melba, a famous Australian opera star, sung here. Other celebrities have taken advantage of the hotel’s hydra baths for more than a century. While we stroll through the old hotel, we note that the place still has a regal flair: a smart-suited and suitably aloof male receptionist hands us a typed information sheet about the hotel. We enjoy a cappuccino on the deck with a wonderful mountain view and then we’re off to the next stop: Govett’s Leap.

We joke about the sign saying 15-Minute Walk to Bridal Falls.  “It doesn’t say how long the return is!” I warn. “But let’s go anyway. We need a little pensioner’s walk.”  

We’re back at the parking area in one and quarter hours. We did take our time, though, past the stepping blocks over the river to the other side. The morning sun brightened the deep, verdant valley. The river was wonderful, cascading over rocks banked with yellow blooming acacia, rust-colored banksias (bottlebrush), and delicate yellow, white, and blue mountain flowers. Bridal Veil Falls, a tantalizing stream of water and fine mist overhanging a rock garden of moss and ferns, was well worth it. By the time we returned, huffing and puffing up all those steps, lazy sheep-clouds had drifted in. They stayed with us for the remainder of the day, providing cooling interludes.

Gunter on the path to Bridal Falls

Gunter on the path to Bridal Falls

Bottle Brush Plant

Bottle Brush Plant

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Our next stop is Evans Point. We amble over to a must-see lookout over pulpit rock. Afterwards, Gunter re-parks the van so the view from the rear window has the valley view. This is when driving a campervan pays off! We enjoy our smoko of chicken breast, dressing, and whole wheat bread.      

Our next stop is Mount Victoria. Gunter buys a few used paperbacks from a quaint, old shop attached to a house that has been in the owner’s family since the early 1900s.  Across the street stands the historic Victoria and Albert Guesthouse and Restaurant, where dining on the wooden, green-railed veranda has been a tradition for over 100 years. The street is lined with blooming pink and white ornamental and fruit trees. What a wonderful time of year to tour the Blue Mountains! 

From the GWH (Great Western Highway) the Darling Causeway links Mount Victoria to Bells Road, which takes us toward Mount Tomah. We continue on to the Mount Tomah Botanical Gardens (called Australia’s Coolest Botanic Gardens) developed by Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. Here, at 1000 meters above sea level, many plants not suited to Sydney’s climate can be grown successfully. 

I’ve fallen in love with these gardens—and especially with the collection of the largest proteas I’ve ever seen. Their wide-open pink blooms remind me of sunflowers backlit against a glowing sunset. The pond’s rock garden, with shimmering lime-colored reeds complementing its gray rocks, is the perfect setting for contemplation and meditation. The blue haze from the mountains turns this place into a heavenly delight.

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Other SailorsTales blogs about Australia are: 

Climbing the Coat Hanger

The Challenge of Writing about Australia

Pavlova from Heaven? No, Australia

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased for the holidays on Amazon.